The Books: “Bad Behavior” – ‘Secretary’ (Mary Gaitskill)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

BadBehaviorGaitskill.jpgBad Behavior: Stories – by Mary Gaitskill – a short story collection – I’ll excerpt from the sixth story today: ‘Secretary’.

‘Secretary’. of course, was made into a film – it’s hard to picture ANY of Gaitskill’s stories being made into films – especially American films which can be so prudish and hypocritical about sex. By cramming everything into the PG-13 rating – to appeal to teenagers – it ensures that the views of sex will be prurient and dirty-minded. So the ratings system dooms any honestly sexual film from the start. If everything has to appeal to teenagers, then we’re fucked. (So kudos to the studio who let 8 Mile, for example, get an R-rating. That was ballsy. Eminem is in it. The rating of that film sent a very clear message about who it was for. He has armies of tweens who adore him. But that rating left them out of the picture. Ballsy. It NEEDED that rating, though – it would have suffered under a PG-13 rating – it couldn’t have been as honest as it needed to be. And it still made 40 million bucks in its opening weekend. So THERE MPAA!! And kudos to the studio execs at Focus Features who let Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution go out with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Good. Good, to those willing to take a risk- in order to maintain the integrity of the film. KuDOS)

All of this is to say – that Secretary, the film, is based on a Gaitskill story – and I suppose it could be described as “out there” although I personally DON’T find it out there – I do know that most people will, and that sado-masochism is not mainstream. The movie was quite startling, because it didn’t treat S&M as though it were a problem that needed to be solved … or that she was a sicko who needed treatment. The movie didn’t see a problem in it at all, as long as they are consenting adults, blah blah blah yawn yawn yawn – but anyway, as out there as that movie would seem to most people – it’s still Hollywood-ized a bit, with the ending (although quite effective, in context of the film) and I am sure Gaitskill saw the final product and had a nice chuckle to herself about it. To my taste, the film works wonderfully – on its own. And where the movie veers off into its own entity – with her being a “cutter” – perfect for the story – and beautifully played – her in the wedding dress at the end, and also her being let out of an institution, etc. – all of that stuff really ADDS. It’s not a literal adaptation, more of a spinning-off point and I think it works really well.

The original is, of course, much bleaker than the film … almost psychotic. She does not get the release that the movie provides her. It ends up being this weird little episode between her and her boss that detaches her even more from reality … but that’s okay, because she prefers to be detached from reality. In the film, the sado-masochistic relationship with her boss is her way IN to a more integrated and full and grown-up life. It is her way out of being dominated by her parents. It is her ticket to healing, and growth, and … well, love. Gaitskill “gets” S&M – make no mistake – she writes about it with convincing clarity and coldness … She doesn’t see it as weird or deviant … just something that certain people are into … who knows why … so what that some chick likes to be humiliated? If it works for her, whatevs … But as always, it’s not that simple. Gaitskill also gets that there are lines … people do have lines that should not be crossed, and the lines are different for each person. What is “too far”? How would you know?

Secretary is about a tentative unspoken exploration in that direction.

Our narrator is damaged. Passive, dominated by her parents, doesn’t have much going on. And this nutjob of a lawyer (he’s way more of a nutjob in the story, believe it or not!!) – SEES her. He SEES her in a way she has never been seen.

And, as we know from science, we are changed when we are observed. We can’t help it.


EXCERPT FROM Bad Behavior: Stories – by Mary Gaitskill – ‘Secretary’.

When he asked me to come into his office at the end of the day, I thought he was going to fire me. The idea was a relief, but a numbing one. I sat down and he fixed me with a look that was speculative but benign, for him. He leaned back in his chair in a comfortable way, one hand dangling sideways from his wrist. To my surprise, he began talking to me about my problems, as he saw them.

“I sense that you are a very nice but complex person, with wild mood swings that you keep hidden. You just shut up the house and act like there’s nobody home.”

“That’s true,” I said. “I do that.”

“Well, why? Why don’t you open up a little bit? It would probably help your typing.”

It was really not any of his business, I thought.

“You should try to talk more. I know I’m your employer and we have a prescribed relationship, but you should feel free to discuss your problems with me.”

The idea of discussing my problems with him was preposterous. “It’s hard to think of having that kind of discussion with you,” I said. I hesitated. “You have a strong personality and … when I encounter a personality like that, I tend to step back because I don’t know how to deal with it.”

He was clearly pleased with this response, but he said, “You shouldn’t be so shy.”

When I thought about this conversation later, it seemed, on the one hand, that this lawyer was just an asshole. On the other, his comments were weirdly moving, and had the effect of making me feel horribly sensitive. No one had ever made such personal comments to me before.

The next day I made another mistake. The intimacy of the previous day seemed to make the mistake even more repulsive to him because he got madder than usual. I wanted him to fire me. I would have suggested it, but I was struck silent. I sat and stared at the letter while he yelled. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He stood quietly for a moment. Then he said, “Come into my office. And bring that letter.”

I followed him into his office.

“Put that letter on my desk,” he said.

I did.

“Now bend over so that you are looking directly at it. Put your elbows on the desk and your face very close to the letter.”

Shaken and puzzled, I did what he said.

“Now read the letter to yourself. Keep reading it over and over again.”

I read: “Dear Mr. Garvy: I am very grateful to you for referring …” He began spanking me as I said “referring”. The funny thing was, I wasn’t even surprised. I actually kept reading the letter, although my understanding of it was not very clear. I began crying on it, which blurred the ink. The word “humiliation” came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.

He spanked me for about ten minutes, I think. I read the letter only about five times, partly because it rapidly became too wet to be legible. When he stopped he said, “Now straighten up and go type it again.”

I went to my desk. He closed the office door behind him. I sat down, blew my nose and wiped my face. I stared into space for several minutes, every now and then dwelling on the tingling sensation in my buttocks. I typed the letter again and took it into his office. He didn’t look up as I put it on his desk.

I went back out and sat, planning to sink into a stupor of some sort. But a client came in, so I couldn’t. I had to buzz the lawyer and tell him the client had arrived. “Tell him to wait,” he said curtly.

When I told the client to wait, he came up to my desk and began to talk to me. “I’ve been here twice before,” he said. “Do you recognize me?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.” He was a small, tight-looking middle-aged man with agitated little hands and a pale scar running over his lip and down his chin. The scar didn’t make him look tough; he was too anxious to look tough.

“I never thought anything like this wouold ever happen to me,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in a lawyer’s office even once, and I’ve been here three times now. And absolutely nothing’s been accomplished. I’ve always hated lawyers.” He looked as though he expected me to take offense.

“A lot of people do,” I said.

“It was either that or I would’ve shot those miserable blankety-blanks next door and I’d have to get a lawyer to defend me anyway. You know the story!”

I did. He was suing his neighbors because they had a dog that “barked all goddamn day.” I listened to him talk. It surprised me how this short conversation quickly restored my sensibility. Everything seemed perfectly normal by the time the lawyer came out of his office to greet the client. I noticed he had my letter in one hand. Just before he turned to lead the client away, he handed it to me, smiling. “Good letter,” he said.

When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.

But when I got into bed and thought about the thing, I got excited. I was more excited, in fact, than I had ever been in my life. That didn’t surprise me, either. I felt a numbness, I felt that I could never have a normal conversation with anyone again. I masturbated slowly, to put off the climax as long as I could. But there was no climax, even though I tried for a long time. Then I couldn’t sleep.

It happened twice more in the next week and a half. The following week, when I made a typing mistake, he didn’t spank me. Instead, he told me to bend over his desk, look at the typing mistake and repeat “I am stupid” for several minutes.

Our relationship didn’t change otherwise. He was still brisk and friendly in the morning. And, because he seemed so sure of himself, I could not help but react to him as if he were still the same domineering but affable boss. He did not, however, ever invite me to discuss my problems with him again.

I began to have recurring dreams about him. In one, the most frequent, I walked with him in a field of big bright red poppies. The day was brilliant and wram. We were smiling at each other, and there was a tremendous sense of release and goodwill between us. He looked at me and said, “I understand you now, Debby.” Then we held hands.

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8 Responses to The Books: “Bad Behavior” – ‘Secretary’ (Mary Gaitskill)

  1. Diana says:

    Oh, I got this book from the library after your first post about it. I actually had to take a break after the first two stories; the people are SO damaged it was making me uncomfortable. Which isn’t a bad thing, not at all. I need to go back to it!

  2. red says:

    Diana – i totally know what you are talking about. I find Gaitskill pretty hard to take at times, too – especially if I am feeling low or disconnected. I have to be in a really strong mood to be able to deal with her.

  3. Jon says:

    …”one hand dangling sideways from his wrist”…”He was a small, tight-looking middle-aged man with agitated little hands and a pale scar running over his lip and down his chin”…these are just the sorts of amazing details that not only support one of Elmore Leonard’s (perhaps too-hard-and-fast?) caveats about how far to go in describing a character (esp. in a short story–the syntax/rhythm here alone is so strong!), but also give us the kind of air we need to continue appreciating Debby’s emotionally discombobulating situation–which starts to seem, partly because of such well-tempered description, no more “wierder” or “deviant” than that of someone falling for her boss in the “usual” way: flowers, chocolate, out-to-dinner, weekend in the tropics, etc. Also, if you’re interested in a more detailed discussion of the story’s film adaptation, I seem to recall Erin Wilson (the screenwriter) going on at length about the nature of her fidelity to the story (as well as her departures from it) in a fairly wild introduction to the shooting script of “Secretary” (saw it in a bookstore once, way back when…) Might be worth checking out. Erin Wilson is a trip herself. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: re-reading this excerpt makes me think of another great “secretary” piece, called “Flotsam” by Deborah Eisenberg (have you read her stuff? I think you’d love her) Totally different story, and yet there some pretty wonderful similarities–both in terms of setting and tone. Check her out. I think it’s in her 1st collection, called “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” and the story was (I think) her first pub’d piece, in the NY’er, about 25 years ago or so.

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  5. Pingback: The original “Secretary” « SUNYOWFilm

  6. Fionnchú says:

    I wanted this film to be so much more, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brave performance does redeem a screenplay that veers for me away from its promising set-up. As you note, the Mary Gaitskill story published in the collection “Bad Behavior” did end badly, so the chirpier adaptation has its own tentative grace, despite considerable clumsiness. I think its makers were embarrassed by the topic. The story (I’d read it when it came out in 1988) and the film ultimately had less in common, commercial demands– and a bit of prudery perhaps– persisting despite Gaitskill’s edgier intent. Even arthouse crowds appeared unsettled by this, I recall from my viewing.

    (P.S. I found your fine review in a Google search, ranked highly! I shared the URL — and expanded on the comment above– with another FB friend who posted a trailer of the film here.)

  7. Olivia says:

    Old blog post, but I’ve just found it so I’m going to respond anyway.

    I am so fed up with ‘mainstream’ anal-retentives who look down their snouts with an inherent need to label as ‘sick’ those who don’t fit into their tight, stifling, boring little world.

    What cheeses me off about the movie ‘Secretary’ – and I’m so surprised you didn’t see the bleedin’ obvious – is that hollywood, in its idiocy, created the ‘understanding’ at the very beginning, that Lee is mentally deficient – she cuts herself – she was in an institution for it.

    With Mr E. Edward Gray, the producers demonstrate that he, too, is mentally deficient – despite being a lawyer – when he types Lee a message, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I do this…” And let’s not forget about his obsession with red pens and hyperactive criticisms.

    The producers, being american and therefore obsessively prudish, present BDSM as something that attracts those who are mentally damaged in some way.

    I don’t know about the author or the original story, but I’ve no intention of reading it if the movie is anything to go by – it’s just another way to label those who are different.

    • sheila says:

      “I have no intention of reading it” – Well that settles that then! You are ranting about the movie in a post that is about the short story. Gaitskill is a hell of a writer, even though she is American. Hope you change your mind and check out her stuff!

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